It’s bad enough when you run into exes on campus. So what happens when you go home for Thanksgiving break and see your high school ex-boyfriend? Memories come rushing back. Sure, you’ve moved on (maybe), have a new life at your college and hardly think about him anymore. Then you see him! Now you’re wondering how you’re going to keep your cool.
Before you run into him...
You don’t have to leave the house dressed like a runway model, but you can take extra time on your appearance before you walk out the door. “Okay, let’s face it. If you roll out of bed, barely brush your hair and head for the mall, Murphy’s Law states that you will definitely run smack into your ex,” says Jodi R. R. Smith, the president and owner of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting. “It’s best to employ preemptive etiquette and be prepared. While pajama pants are great for lounging in front of the TV, you should take it up a notch when you’re going out and about.”
This can be as simple as throwing on a cute sweater and jeans, swiping on a little mascara and lip gloss and twisting your hair into a sexy bun. If you do run into one of your high school exes, you won’t be worrying about how you look and can focus on making the best of the encounter.
Now what should you say and do if you run into him? We’ve developed a reference guide to help you through a few potentially awkward encounters.
Encounter #1: You run into your ex at the mall or local pizza place.
Christina*, a junior at Ohio University, ran into her ex-boyfriend while Christmas shopping at the mall one year. Their relationship had ended amicably, but it was still awkward. “I just asked how he was doing and how his family was doing. He asked the same of me,” she says.
Your current feelings toward your ex-boyfriend and the overall situation will determine the best way to handle the encounter.
Carole Lieberman, M.D. psychiatrist and author of Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets says, “Whether or not to have a conversation with your ex depends upon whether you have a crush on him or not and whether he’s alone or with friends or OMG, a girlfriend.”
If he’s alone and you still have feelings for him, Dr. Lieberman suggests keeping the conversation casual and friendly. Talk about school and your holiday plans. You want to engage in small talk without pressing for a deeper connection. “Act friendly but not like you’ve been stalking him,” Lieberman says.
Keep the tone light and watch his body language. Smith suggests paying attention to how much space he keeps between you and him. Does he lean into you or back away? Does he casually touch your arm or hold himself at a distance? “These clues will tell you if he wants to get to know you again or forget you altogether,” she says. If it looks like he wants to run, shorten the conversation, say your goodbyes and return to your shopping.
You should also keep in mind that your ex-boyfriend likely feels the same awkwardness and nervousness that you’re feeling.
“It’s just as awkward for guys as it is for girls,” says Sean from the University of Pittsburgh and one of our former Real Live College Guys. “Don’t flat-out ignore your ex. Acknowledge each other and don’t be afraid to talk. If he ignores you or doesn’t want to talk to you, remember that it’s really too bad for him.”
Sometimes your former boyfriend doesn’t want to talk, so avoid pressing the issue. Smith suggests a quick “Hey, great to see you! How are things at school? Gotta run, just grabbing a few things before I’m obligated back at the house! Happy Thanksgiving!” and walking quickly and confidently away.
If he’s with his friends or a girlfriend, Dr. Lieberman advises the smile-and-wave. It shows that you’re not still hung up on him (even if you are) and helps the both of you save face from a potentially horrible encounter.
Encounter #2: You see your ex at a party... and he’s with another girl.
Even if it’s been a few years since you and your ex-boyfriend broke up, it can still be hard to see him with another girl. The worst part is seeing him with a former friend or your high school rival. Take a deep breath and calm your emotions. Remember that he’s no longer in your life and doesn’t have the power to ruin your day.
Focus on having fun instead of worrying about what he’s doing. “Say hi and move on to a different group of people who are having a fun conversation – where he’s likely to see you laughing and having a good time,” says Dr. Lieberman. Not only will you look confident, you may forget he’s even there.
Of course, your ex-boyfriend and his current girl might actually try to talk to you. Smith suggests finding a way to “get out of dodge” as soon as possible. Make polite conversation and scan the crowd for the host or hostess of the party.
Smith says, “Find the host and say, ‘I am so glad you invited me! While it was great to see everyone, I’ve got to go. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!’ No need to explain; just remove yourself from the awkward situation.” The holidays tend to be busy, so no one will think too much about it.
Encounter #3: Your ex-boyfriend knows you’re home and wants to “meet up” over break.
Your relationship had ended after both of you agreed it would be for the best. Maybe you’ve even stayed friends on Facebook and talk occasionally on Skype. Running into your ex won’t be so awkward if it’s a planned meeting, but what should you do when you hang out and what should you expect?
“How you feel [about him] will help guide your actions,” Smith says.
If you’re both still in love with each other, she suggests going bowling, hiking or miniature golfing or some other similar activity. This gives you an opportunity to talk, have fun and get to know each other again. Catch up on college and career goals and maybe bring up some of the good memories that you both share. Just avoid discussing the more serious aspects of your past relationship or anything that would start an argument.
Rekindling the romance with your ex may seem like a good idea, but it’s wise to proceed with caution and protect both your heart and his. If you attend different colleges, a romance could be tricky. Dr. Seth Meyers, relationship expert and author of Dr. Seth’s Love Prescription, says, “Both of you need to be clear about what you want so that no one gets their feelings hurt.” Ask yourself if you really want to rekindle the romance and what the relationship would need to work the second time around.
Not looking for romance? “If one [or both] of you just wants to be friends, invite out a bunch of other friends and go to dinner,” Smith says. “Do dinner instead of drinks because dinner has a natural ending.” Being part of a group decreases the chance for awkward silences and ensures that the evening is casual and drama-free. You’ll also be able to excuse yourself as soon as the check comes.
Center your conversation around school, family and your holiday plans. If the conversation does start to get awkward, casually change the subject and include some of your other friends in the new discussion. Participating in an activity like bowling also steers the conversation into the here-and-now, and you can focus on beating him with a better score!
What if you don’t want to see him at all? Smith says that telling him that you have a full holiday schedule is the best way to politely decline the invitation. You’re not required to see your ex again, and you can spare yourself the heartache by avoiding the situation.
Encounter #4: Instead of running into your ex-boyfriend, you run into his parents.
This might be one of the more awkward encounters. Knowing what to say to your ex-boyfriend is much easier than knowing what to say to his parents. His parents used to love (or hate) you, and you’re worried about how they’ll respond when they see you again.
“Believe it or not, you act the same way no matter what the situation,” says Smith. “Take the high road. They might really like you, but their loyalty is to their son. And if they hate you, taking the high road works well too.”
Smith advises against giving in to the impulse to tell his parents how much you love their son and wish things had turned out differently. What should you say? Let them know that you’re doing well and appreciate their concern. Stick to polite conversation and wish them a happy Thanksgiving before walking away and returning to your shopping or errands. You’ll likely impress them with your maturity.
After you run into him....
Try not to overanalyze the conversation. If you were polite, kept the conversation friendly and didn’t scream or cry, you probably handled the situation very well. Congratulate yourself for keeping your cool and enjoy the time spent with your family. You’ll be back on campus soon enough. Happy Thanksgiving!
*Names have been changed to protect identities.